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Irish Ferries: compromise deal is no victory

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The Irish Ferries strike ended yesterday (14th December) amidst much back-slapping.

Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, Fine Gael leader, Enda Kenny and even Labour’s Pat Rabbitte heaved a collective sigh of relief that a deal had been signed. They all told the Dáil that the LRC and the National Implementation Body should be thanked for negotiating a settlement, while the LRC chief executive Kieran Mulvey passed on his praise to Irish Ferries and the union leaders. SIPTU President, Jack O’Connor, said his union would now be willing to go into partnership talks.

What united all these smarmy creatures into hurrying along an end to the dispute, of course, was the enormous solidarity movement developing across the country.

Last Friday, 9th December, we may have witnessed a watershed in the recent history of the Irish labour movement. For the first time since the early 1980s, the streets of the major Irish cities were filled with workers united in struggle against the disgusting offensive mounted by the Irish Ferries bosses.

In Dublin, 80,000 to 100,000 turned up despite the fact that a general strike had not been called by the ICTU (Irish Congress of Trade Unions) leadership – that is, many thousands would have taken industrial action to turn up in such numbers to a weekday demonstration.

Workers from all sectors of the Irish economy were represented, both indigenous and immigrant. There was a huge official union turnout with banners, drums and brass bands. Other protests took place around the country with 10,000 hitting the streets in Cork and Limerick, 2,500 in Galway and a massive 15,000 in the industrial city of Waterford, as well as protests in Rosslare, Athlone, Tralee and Sligo.

The call for a general strike to win a complete victory for the Irish Ferries crews was no idle threat. Despite their shambolic and vapid speeches that day, SIPTU and ICTU leaders must have been scared shitless that, unless a deal could be conjured up, this dispute, which had come to represent everything hateful about the neoliberal offensive, could mushroom into a general fightback. And that – not justice for the workers – motivated all sides to reach a compromise.

A Modest Proposal

Fittingly, one of the ships involved in the dispute was the Jonathan Swift, the great Irish satirist, who published a pamphlet, A Modest Proposal, suggesting the Irish toilers sell their children to be eaten in order to alleviate poverty. Ironically, the best that can be said about the deal, the details of which remain hazy, is that the Siptu leadership has signed away the rights of tomorrow’s workforce for the sake of a few thousand euros in the pockets of today’s seafarers. A modest compromise, indeed.

What have our bold negotiators won?

According to Siptu’s website, existing workers, who want to continue on the ferries, will be offered their old contracts, pay and conditions. Those, who wish to leave, will be allowed to apply for the redundancy offer, which had, until yesterday, been closed in September.

The new workers, who had been recruited in Latvia and Lithuania, will now be paid the Irish National Minimum Wage. The union and Ahern claim that this will be underwritten by Irish law. However, a Siptu member has warned on indymedia that: firstly, “accommodation and board” will be deducted from the 7.65 euros an hour rate, leaving the workers on pretty damn close to their old rate of 3.60 euros; secondly, the deal will be up after three years, and Irish ferries will be able to crash wages down to the rock bottom again.

Siptu officials are also keen to trumpet their negotiation of significantly higher wages for Latvian officers and skilled technicians. Big deal! Everyone has been aware for weeks that Irish Ferries has been 100 officers short precisely because it was offering wage rates for these positions, which were too low even by Latvian standards.

But the big concessions were all made the other way round.

Irish Ferries won its core policy unscathed. It will be re-flagged – possibly in Cyprus, or even Madagascar! From now on, workers doing the same job will be paid different rates, thus undermining future solidarity action and resistance to piecemeal attacks on wages and conditions. And in three years time the contracts can be redrawn in circumstances far more favourable to Eamonn Rothwell and the rest of Irish Ferries board.

Even worse, the unions agreed to a three-year no strike clause. According to Irish Ferries director of human resources, Alf McGrath:

“Both parties have agreed to submit themselves to binding arbitration. This should effectively prevent any re-occurence of industrial action of any kind.”

The Irish Times, which ran this news (there has been no mention of this on Siptu’s own website!), says the clause will stand for the full three years. No wonder Irish Ferries bosses believe they can “compete” under the terms of this deal!

Crisis of leadership

The political bankruptcy of the union leadership in Siptu and the ICTU has been cruelly exposed. The fact that their campaign was labelled “A Threshold of Decency” shows that this leadership was always prepared to accept Irish Ferries workers being replaced by a new workforce on the National Minimum Wage. The patronising language of these bureaucrats as they talk about “ordinary people” and “fair standards of living” (who decides what is fair?) makes it clear they will cut and run at the nearest opportunity in order to preserve the cosy cartel with the bosses and pro-capitalist governments they have engendered over the past eighteen years.

Throughout the “Celtic Tiger” period, profits for the Irish and Ireland-based multinational capitalism have soared, house prices have gone into the stratosphere, the health service and education sector have been allowed to rot and all the while the union “leadership” has sold its members down the river for wage increases that barely keep up with inflation.

This latest collapse before the employer class is not a one-off. The General Agreement of Trade in Services and more particularly the Bolkestein EU directive will both be used to further erode wages and conditions in the service sector. Bolkestein, in particular, allows for companies registered in East European countries to circumvent higher labour standards and legal requirements in the West, even when those jobs are performed entirely inland.

The bosses are scrutinising this settlement closely and will see the opportunity to further divide and subsequently conquer it by sucking the union leaders into rounds of talks and guaranteeing a return to work without dropping their proposals. This is not a maritime-specific dispute, but a taste of things to come.

The Way Forward

VI Lenin once said that opportunism was the sacrificing of the movement’s future for temporary gains in the here and now. How inbred this opportunism is, and how sclerotic Irish labour’s opportunistic leaders are can only be measured when one remembers that victory was there to be won.

Like the Socialist Workers Party, we applaud the courage and determination of the Irish Ferries workers and the countless activists, who rallied to their cause. But unlike these “socialists”, we do not see fit to proclaim the deal a victory or to hide the treacherous role played by the official leaders. To do so would be to participate in a cover-up, rather than point the way forward.

The heroic and unofficial actions of the Irish Ferries workers, who occupied their ships, has paved the way for the Irish working class to reclaim its place in history and set an example for the working class across Europe. The union rank and file must come together to drive the struggle from below and realise the potential they have to determine history.

The size of these protests alone has put the wind up the bosses and has taken the union bureaucrats by surprise. The struggle was forced on the union leaders by the masses of Irish workers, who have rediscovered their militancy in the light of an increased offensive by Irish capital on their rights, standards of living and working conditions.

This moment must not be allowed to pass without consolidating this militancy and forging the basis for a reinvigorated, fighting working class movement which can excise once and for all the cancerous growth of partnership with the bosses that has taken place in Ireland over the past 18 years. The only way for workers to ensure this is to democratically elect independent workers committees among the rank and file union membership and be relentless in forcing the agenda – in defiance of union “leadership” if necessary!

We need to orientate towards the migrant workers and provide a lead for winning them into the trade unions. This will be vital in future disputes that are bound to follow now that Irish Ferries have won the “right” to super-exploit foreign workers in Ireland.

The basis for a movement of rank and file activists to gain control of their unions and take on the bosses needs to be effective industrial action. All no strike deals – at Irish Ferries, under the name of “Social Partnership”, or anywhere else – need to be smashed.

And wherever workers find themselves in struggle against the bosses, solidarity action should be called for across other sections of the working class and the trade union movement.

The Irish Ferries dispute has revealed that the union leaders will not organise to implement this basic tenet of trade unionism. They even sat on a 3:1 vote for strike action by Irish Ferries shore staff, rather than escalate the dispute. The rank and file must organise solidarity action, including strike action, and demand the officials support it.

Against the union bureaucrats’ “Social Partnership” we fight for independent, fighting trade unions across Ireland and Europe. And against Labour’s advocacy for “globalisation with a human face”, and the SWP’s left cover for these misleaders, we call for a new revolutionary socialist party, with the goal of taking ownership of the means of production and building a truly democratic world based on people, not profit!

Further Reading:

For the background to the dispute and the lead up to the Day of Protest, click here...

The Trade Union Bureaucracy

Globalisation – the latest stage of Imperialism

Transform the Trade Unions

EDITORS NOTICE: An earlier version of this article wrongly accused the Socialist Party of providing “left cover” for the trade union bureaucracy". We apologise for this error. While we maintain criticism of the SP’s intervention into the dispute namely, their call to take Irish Ferries into “democratic public ownership” without adding the demand for workers’
control and no compensation to the former owners, and their limiting of the general strike call to 24 hours and the trade union policy of the CWI in general, we recognise that in this dispute their intervention was superior to the SWP’s and could in no way be described as “left cover” for the bureaucracy.